Five days later, Sid Lambert, a 78-year-old widower, was told that his landlord wanted to increase his rent from about pounds 82 a week to pounds 250 - a rise of more than 200 per cent.
Although their fortunes are very different, the two pensioners are connected by a run-down two-bedroom flat in Hylda Court, a fading but architec- turally impressive mansion block in north London. The connection is simple: Mrs Pears is the landlord, Mr Lambert the tenant.
Mr Lambert is one of a group of tenants with protected rights (whose rents must be approved by the Rent Officer Service) in the 30-flat building who are finding life increasingly difficult under the stewardship of Mrs Pears's company, Bankway Properties, part of a vast network of companies ultimately owned by William Pears Family Holdings.
This company stunned the City when, in 1996, it paid out a pounds 42.4m dividend to Mrs Pears, her three sons, Mark, David and Trevor, and a number of family trusts. Even after such an outpouring of cash, the company still boasts pounds 112m net assets and profits after tax of pounds 11.9m.
Yet the family is astonishingly secretive. Mrs Pears is reclusive and staff at the family's four-storey brick headquarters in a mews in Hampstead, north London, say her sons are not often to be seen. Three of the four family members list their address as Clive House, Old Brewery Mews, Hampstead - the company headquarters. Only Mark has listed another address, in Totteridge, north London.
Estimates of their wealth vary. Their estates manager, Nick Stanley, denies one report that they owned more than 10,000 properties across the country; but one housing officer said she believed the figure was as high as 40,000.
The residents of Hylda Court and the Pears family came into each other's lives in March 1996 when the company bought the mansion block, a 1930s art-deco style property, for just pounds 1.4m. In comparison with many London buildings, it is relatively well maintained. From the outset, however, the company wanted to make as much money from the property as possible.
"We're not social landlords or a council housing department or a housing association - we're in it to make money," said Mr Stanley. "The idea is to maximise the income from the building. But we have done nothing wrong and we have nothing to be ashamed of. We are simply trying to get the market rate for the flats. The final decision on our application to increase the rents will be with the Rent Officer Service."
Protected tenants, however, a vanishing group of people, are not a lucrative source of income. More lucrative are assured shorthold tenants who have no security of tenure and whose rents do not have to be approved by the Rent Officer Service. When the Pears family took over Hylda Court, all 30 flats enjoyed protected status. Now, according to the residents, only 17 remain, leaving the vacant flats to be let at much higher rents.
"They just want us out," said Mr Lambert, pointing to his damp walls, grimy kitchen, jammed windows and his bathroom cold water tap from which comes only a trickle. "When I got the demand for more rent, I got a hell of a shock. What will I do? I've lived here since 1959."
Other tenants tell of demands for arrears which they describe as "bogus". The managing agents, B Bailey & Co, claim there have been disagreements because the previous agents, Keningtons, failed to pass on accounts. Keningtons confirmed that all details were passed on upon completion of the sale of the building.
Nevertheless, tenants who believed they owed nothing have been threatened with eviction.
Malcolm Collins, 63, and his wife, Suzanne, 66, have lived at Hylda Court for 34 years. Bankway Properties has applied to increase their rent from pounds 113 a week to pounds 250 and is suing them for pounds 1,350, which they claim they do not owe.
"The planned rent rise is just pure greed," said Mrs Collins. "This place is like a building site with workers upgrading all the flats they have got empty so they can let them at higher rates. But the workmen don't come anywhere near residents' flats to carry out our repairs.
"That will only happen after we get driven out, when we can no longer afford to live here."
Mr Stanley said there was no question of that. "If these people are pensioners, then they will be entitled to claim Housing Benefit to make up the difference, so they will be okay."
But that will provide little consolation to residents in work or, like Tom Sharp, a 47 year old teacher, in between jobs. He is among those who have received demands for arrears he claims he does not owe. "They told me I owe more than pounds 9,000, which is impossible," he said. "It would mean I had paid nothing since they bought the place."Reuse content